September 2018 Print

The Cathedral of Chartres

by Dr. Marie-France Hilgar

The cathedral of Chartres represents the high point in the development of Gothic style. The vicissitudes of time and the depredations of man have affected Chartres far less than other cathedrals and it is here as nowhere else where one can experience the spiritual enchantment that the medieval cathedrals were intended to evoke in man. The stained-glass is almost intact, and on the portals one can follow the entire development of Gothic sculpture. The cathedral is 426 feet long, 108 feet wide and a height of 121 feet. The north tower is 377 feet high.

The History of the Cathedral

On the site of the present cathedral, in heathen times, it was a grotto with a fountain which was dedicated to the mother goddess. According to an old source, the picture of a virgin who was to give birth was venerated there. The Christian missionaries believed this cult to be prophetic of Mary, and ever since, the Madonna has been honored in that place. The celebrated miraculous image in the crypt, Notre-Dame-sous-terre, is still visited by pilgrims today. The statue has repeatedly been restored over the centuries with the least possible departure from the original. The bones of the Christian martyrs, who had been cast into the fountain, rendered it holy and endowed it with miraculous powers. In the Middle Ages, the sick gathered near the fountain seeking to be healed. In the crypt, remnants of a building of the 9th century are still preserved. After a fire in 1020, a church of the same dimensions of the present cathedral was built. Chartres became the most famous shrine to the Virgin in northern France. The veil of the Madonna, which had come from Constantinople, was presented to Chartres by Charles the Bold. Its renown was greatly enhanced when the liberation of the town from the Normans, in 911, was attributed to its miraculous powers. The precious shrine was plundered during the Revolution and the relic torn to pieces and dispersed. In the 19th century, the pieces were re-collected and returned to the cathedral. It consists of fine antique silk wrapped in an oriental cloth. Scholars agree it could very well date from the time of Christ. The crypt is extended beneath the entire length of the upper structure. Two towers were built during the first half of the 12th century, and a little later the present façade, to the height of the rose window, was erected between them. The sculpture of this façade, the famous Kings’ portal of Chartres is a production of the 3rd quarter of the 12th century. This period of building, to which also belongs the three large stained-glass windows of the facade, had a decisive influence on the development of the Gothic style. In 1194, the church burned to the ground. Only the crypt, the towers and façade were preserved. Many people mourned the disaster. Kings, princes and the lowly-born made donations and even worked side by side on the actual reconstruction of the edifice. Within 20 years, the entire cathedral was rebuilt. By the time of the consecration in 1260, the transept portals with their sculptures, as well as the glass windows, had also been finished. In the 14th and 15th centuries a few chapels were added. In the beginning of the 16th century, the delicate spire of the north tower, as well as the clock pavilion on the north side of the church were built. In the 18th century, before the Revolution, the beautiful 13th century choir screen was destroyed. In 1793, the treasury of the church was plundered and the lead covering of the roof of the church melted down for cannon balls. Overall, however, as stated before, the venerable cathedral survived the storms of the Revolution without much damage. The roof of the cathedral with its numerous wooden beams, was destroyed by a fire in 1836 and the was replaced by the government by a roof of iron. In recent years, we from the SSPX, make a pilgrimage. Our pilgrims go on foot from Chartres starting on Saturday and walk into Paris on Monday. A Mass is then celebrated in the afternoon. It used to take place on the steps of the Sacré-Cœur, but now is in front of the Invalides plaza.

The Cathedral’s Unique Façade

The façade of the cathedral has no uniform structure. Its three parts: towers, middle section with portals and windows, and the great rose window, 23 feet in diameter. Each has its own particular beauty. Both towers are essentially identical in structure to the level of the upper gallery. The moss-colored roof of the south tower, however, has an unforgettable patina, while the slender spire of the north shows the refined elegance of the late Gothic. The independence of those towers from the rest of the building is emphasized by the absence of portals in their lower stories. The three doors are grouped together in the middle section of the façade, forming the famous portail royal. The jambs, tympanums and archivolts are decorated with sculptures from the 12th century. Here, the fervent faith of the early Gothic can be seen most clearly. The figures on the jambs are not yet detached from the columns behind them as will be the case in the Gothic style of a few decades later. Their arms are pressed to their bodies, just as are their rigidly folded garments. Their faces are serene and contained. Yet, the clear purity of this “archaic” early stage of sculpture is by no means inferior to the full unfolding of the human figure in the “classical” stage of Gothic sculpture on the transept façades. In every artistic development, innovations are achieved only at the expense of some of the most vital characteristics of old. The sense of the divine in these severe early figures is much more convincing than in the freely developed human forms of a half century later, as one can see most clearly in the Christ Triumphant on the central tympanum. In this representation, there is no action. Christ appears to us enthroned, as on the day of His second coming. He is framed by a mandorla and surrounded by the symbols of the four Evangelists.

An undulating band encloses the entire scene, while above it, from the keystones of the archivolts, angels hold the celestial crown over the divine majesty. Directly below it, the twelve apostles are seated. The three portals, both in their structure and their symbolism, constitute a magnificent unity. In the lower region are the kings and queens of the Old Law, the ancestors of Christ. The Ascension of the left tympanum is rendered in the same solemn manner as the Christ Triumphant in the center. On the right we find, for the first time on a portal tympanum, Our Lady in her celestial majesty. On the archivolts of the central portals, angels and the elders of the Apocalypse surround the Christ Triumphant. The archivolts of the side portals, however, are devoted to secular subjects. The large rose window and the Kings’ gallery above it date from the 13th century, the same period as the nave. The transept portals, with their porches, also date from the 13th century. Their sculpture forms a unity with that of the west portals. The poses of the Apostles, Martyrs and Confessors of the south portal are more relaxed and the figures possess a greater sense of corporeal reality than it is the case with the kings of the western façade. The figures still have a certain degree of rigidity in their gestures, yet beneath the folds of their garments, one is aware of the human body. Christ, on the trumeau of the central portal, is the serene and beautiful Son of God who dwells on earth.

The sculptures on the north portal portrays those personages of the Old Testament whose significance is revealed only after the coming of Christ, in which event, their prophecies are fulfilled. Thus, on the jamb of the left portal, Isaiah stands next to the Annunciation and Daniel next to the Visitation. The Mother of God is the last link in a long chain of progenitors. She belongs to both worlds, the old and the new. Hence her principal place in these representations: she is seated, on the center pier, enthroned in the arms of her mother Anne, and farther up on the tympanum, she appears transfigured, in the act of being crowned by her divine Son. The figures of the prophets are more varied in pose and more strongly individualized than are those of the confessors on the south portal. Expressive figures such as Abraham with his son Isaac or John the Baptist with the Divine Lamb are full of humanity. Those figures represent the latest period of medieval sculpture in Chartres (from 1230).

An Interior Like No Other

The incomparable beauty of the interior is due not only to the red and blue light that fill the space like a delicately colored mist, but also to the perfect harmony of its proportions. The plan is cruciform. A two-bay narthex at the western end opens into a seven-bay nave leading from the crossing, from which wide transepts extend three more bays each to the north and south. East of the crossing are four rectangular bays terminating in a semi-circular apse. The nave and transepts are flanked by single aisles, broadening to a double-aisled ambulatory around the choir’s apse. From the ambulatory radiate three deep semi-circular chapels and three that are more shallow. The elevation, which has three stories, arcade, triforium, clerestory, is uniform and compact. The gallery has been eliminated and the vaults are no longer sexpartite. By eschewing the gallery level, the architects were able to make the richly-glazed arcade and clerestory levels larger and almost equal in height, with just a narrow dark triforium in between. Chartres was perhaps the first example to make a success of this design and to use it consistently throughout. Round and hexagonal pillars alternate, each of which has four attached half-columns at the cardinal points, two of which support the arches of the arcade. This acts as the springing for the aisle vault and supports the cluster of shafts that rise through the triforium and clerestory to support the high vault ribs. This pier design gives the space a sense of rhythmic progression. The result was a far greater area of window openings. Increasing the size of the windows meant reducing the wall area considerably, something which was made possible only by the extensive use of flying buttresses on the outside. The buttresses supported the heavy lateral thrusts resulting from the 34 meter high stone vaults, higher and wider than any attempted before. The vaults are quadripartite, each bay split into four webs by two diagonally crossing ribs. Another architectural breakthrough was a resolution of how to attach columns or shafts around a pier in a way that worked aesthetically. A labyrinth, 42 feet in diameter, is set in the floor stones in the nave of the cathedral. It may be the world’s most recognized and famous path, yet it is surrounded in mystery. There have been many theories and elaborate mythology surrounding the original construction of the labyrinth. It was most likely constructed in the first decade of the 13th century. An excavation in 2001 claimed that its center was the site of a memorial or tomb but no evidence was found to back up such claims. Pilgrims have been coming for some 1,000 years and the tide shows no sign of slowing. It is uncovered, free from chairs, every Friday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm from Ash Wednesday to All Saints’ Day.

Our Lady of the Pillar

At the north end of the ambulatory is another much-venerated image of the Madonna, Our Lady of the Pillar. It dates from the 15th century. The choir walls, begun in 1514, but not completed until 200 years later, mirror the development of sculpture from the 16th to the 18th centuries.

In no other cathedral are the windows so well preserved. Almost all of the windows date from the same time as the architecture, the first half of the 13th century. The three large windows in the west are contemporary with the façade, from the 12th century. After accumulating some 800 years of grime, the French government decided it was time to get them cleaned. It took some ten years, and a lot of money…It would be rather tedious to give the a of the 124 stained-glass windows, so we will concentrate on just a few of them.


1. The most famous window seems to be that of the Belle Verrière, in the south ambulatory, dating from the 12th century and having escaped the 1194 fire which destroyed the Roman cathedral. A set of angels frame the Virgin on each side. The ones on the upper part hold censers. The Virgin is dressed in luminous blue which outlines the darker blues around her. She is sitting on a throne supported by angels. From the dove of the Holy Ghost fall rays of light. The baby Jesus is holding an open book.

2. In an oculus close by, the Virgin is seen breastfeeding the baby Jesus who blesses her. Again, two angels swing two censers. The crown worn by the Virgin signifies that she is a queen because she is the mother of Christ and nourishes Him with her milk.

3. On the southern aisle is found the Creation of Eve. God, looking like Christ, looks at Eve whom he has just created. Adam is sleeping, his head resting on his bent arm. Eve is taken out of Adam’s side. The careful drawing shows one pair of legs only, which can be attributed to the woman as to the man.

4. In an absidial chapel, the stained-glass window of St. Cheron details the work of masons, stone cutters and sculptors. On the left, a mason verifies the verticality of a tower, a handyman chops a large stone with a hammer that also cuts. Other stone cutters work on other big blocks of stones. On the right is the sculptors workshop. One of them is drinking water during a pause. His co-worker is wearing some kind of bonnet that ties under the chin.

5. In the central northern part is, on the left, David and beneath, the suicide of king Saul. On the right is Salomon and beneath, king Jeroboam kneeling in front of golden calves. In the center is St. Anne holding in her arms the child Mary.

6. In the northern side of the transept is a young Salomon, looking somewhat like Louis IX. His scepter displays a fleur-de-lys and the blue coat lined with ermine fur is, of course, the coat worn by French kings.

7. In the south façade of the transept are four lancets where the great prophets carry the evangelists on their shoulders. The idea is that the New testament rests on the Old.

8. The Virgin with the seven gifts is found on the north side of the nave. Six doves with halos, presented around the Virgin symbolize six of the seven gifts from the Holy Ghost. The seventh, the Child Jesus, is in a halo at the level of the Virgin’s womb. He represents, symbolically, Wisdom.

9. In the stained-glass of the Assumption, in the southern lower side is the Dormition of the Virgin. Mary, lying in bed is surrounded by the Apostles. They show great sadness, but with restrain.

10. The last one of the stained-glass windows we will discuss is that of St. Nicolas and the three children. It dates from the 13th century and shows the three children in a salting keg. One can appreciate how much the art of stained-glass has evolved, including more details, using yellow, silver and colored enamels.

In one of the southern chapels, there is a window of the late Middle Ages. Thus, in Chartres, one can follow the development of Gothic stained-glass through the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries.